Why America Tortures Its Detainees

December 16, 2007 at 4:29 pm | Posted in America, Torture | 1 Comment

As the evidence continues to come out in dribs and drabs, we learn more and more that indeed the Bush administration ordered the torture of detainees by the CIA.

So now the process can be fully diagrammed, and the cast of characters is stunning. The torture system involves the operations division of the CIA on the implementation side. They rely heavily on contractors, it seems, in torturing people. And a special role is apparently played by a couple of psychologists. (Time used to be that healthcare professionals had an oath. It started “first, do no harm.” But, just like the Bible and the Constitution, that’s so pre-9/11. And with the American Psychological Association providing full cover, what’s the worry.)

We know that the Justice Department is right in the thick of it. Who precisely? The answer is most likely the Office of Legal Counsel—which has now emerged as what George Orwell called the “Ministry of Love” (remember: in Nineteen Eighty-Four that’s the ministry that picked and approved torture practices). But it doesn’t end with the opinion lawyers. The National Security Division is also in the thick of things, apparently. Alberto Gonzales, before he became attorney general, played station master for the initial series of torture memos. Once he landed at Justice, he kept a close watch on all torture issues and lied to Congress about it. With the attorney general’s office staking out a close interest in torture, it’s unlikely that others in the Department would have substituted their judgment for his. Thus the ball would seem to be squarely in Michael Mukasey’s court.

And finally the White House. David Addington, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley—these are all name we can now link directly to the torture system. Not just as a matter of theory. As a matter of practical application. They decided who would be tortured and how. And John B. Bellinger III, the man who keeps making a laughing-stock of himself with speeches on international law (as, for instance, when he tells us he can’t raise a legal objection to the idea of the Iranians waterboarding some captured American airman), who was legal counsel at NSC and continues now to hold that role with Condi Rice at State. He constantly issued assurances “off the record” to human rights groups and bar groups that we certainly don’t torture. And now it’s reasonably clear that he was right in the thick of the torture approval process all along.

This resurrects the process of official cruelty under the Stuart monarchs in seventeenth century England. Persons accused of state crimes very frequently were interrogated with the use of specific techniques, including the rack, the thumbscrew, and waterboarding. King James I personally described the process in The Kings Booke (1606). He would, on the advice of his officers, “approve no new torture,” but he would certainly avail himself of the existing practices. In ascending order of severity they were: thumbscrews, the rack and waterboarding. That’s right. Waterboarding was considered the most severe of the official forms of torture. Worse than the rack and thumbscrews.

So what’s the rationale? What makes war supporters and torture supporters sleep at night? What justification do they use to rest their hearts? Kevin Drum shares a letter from a reader on the reason why, the rationale behind accepting torture:

I want our side to win. Or maybe more accurately, I don’t want our side to lose….As with any other form of violence, motivation is everything. A cop shooting a murderer is not the same as a murderer shooting an innocent victim, although both use guns, and at the end, someone is bleeding and dying.

You’d be amazed at how many people find these things nearly equivalent. A leftist I know sees no difference between a Palestinian child dying from a stray Israeli bullet during a firefight, and an Israeli child dying when a Palestinian terrorist puts the barrel of a gun to the kid’s forehead and blows his brains across the back wall of the child’s bedroom. In his two-dimensional perception, the only important factor is that both resulted in a dead child. Avoiding true moral analysis and motivations allows him to skirt the concept of “evil,” a term which makes many liberals intensely uncomfortable.

John Kiriakou said that waterboarding a terrorist stopped dozens of attacks. Dozens. Not attacks on military targets, but attacks on innocent non-combatants.

That was the motivation.

The terrorists who torture and kill our prisoners (never something as benign as waterboarding) don’t do it because they need information to save innocent people. They do it because they like it, because they want to hurt or kill someone.

At some point you have to decide if a known terrorist having a very bad day (after which he goes back to a hot meal and a cot) is more of a moral problem than allowing a terrorist to blow up a building full of people.

Yes, it’s good if we do it, when it’s for the right reasons. So far, it’s been for the right reasons. And no, it isn’t good when it’s done to us, for the reasons it has been done to us. Get back to me when some enemy tortures one of our soldiers in order to save innocent lives.

Got it?

But as some commentators said:

Behind the argument for torture is pretty straight up utilitarianism.
If somehow magically, you could know for ABSOLUTELY certain that torture of one person would save millions of lives, then you would do it. I know I would do it. I assume anyone that doesn’t follow an infantile version of Kant would do it.
The problem is that we will never know for certain that torture saves lives, and we can never trust the information we get from torture, and torture has so many morally corrupting side effects that go along with it, that in the end, the utilitarian calculus for routinized torture just isn’t worth it.


I understand his argument, and it scares me. Simply: we are good, therefore we can kill and torture. They are evil, therefore their torturing and killing are evil. Two problems: 1)”they” make exactly the same argument. 2) If we kill and torture, are we not therefore evil?

We are good because we DON’T torture. If we begin torturing our detainees, we lose the status of being GOOD. We turn EVIL, and become the enemy of the GOOD.

1 Comment »

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  1. “The terrorists who torture and kill our prisoners (never something as benign as waterboarding) don’t do it because they need information to save innocent people. They do it because they like it, because they want to hurt or kill someone.”

    Pretty close. The idea that one tortures to obtain information is preposterous.

    One does not torture to GET information, one tortures to GIVE information.

    One target of that information is the alleged “enemy”, whom one is trying to intimidate as Naomi Klein describes so well in her most recent book.

    The primary target of torture is one’s own politicians and citizens, where it is hoped that torture will convey the lengths one is willing to hold one to power, as Saddam portrayed by his willingness to kill pointblank. Our civilian leaders do the same, much to the dismay of our military leaders.

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